This House Believes That Social Media Has Successfully Reinvented Social Activism

Egypt, February 2011

On 31st May, I was delighted to be invited to the Oxford Union to debate the proposition This House Believes That Social Media has Successfully Reinvented Social Activism.
I chose to debate against the motion, and spoke last. Also speaking against the motion was Matt Warman, Consumer Technology Editor at The Daily Telegraph; Mark Kersten of the LSE; and Dr Christopher Carpenter from the University of Western Illinois. Speaking in favour was Senator David Vitter of Louisiana; Mark Pfeifle, National Security Advisor to President George W Bush; and Benjamin Cohen, the Channel 4 News Technology correspondent and founder of Ella Robertson of the Union opened the debate.
An iPhone recording of my speech is here, along with the transcript below. I shall write a follow up post with some nuanced thoughts on the debate, to balance the high flung rhetoric.
And for the record: Our side was successful. The motion was defeated!


The first thing we’ve learnt today, is that if you’re the last to speak there is no point in writing a speech. My three amigos on this side of the bench have covered half of what I wanted to say. The four avengers on the other side have pulled apart and then embarrassed the other half. And then from the floor, the audience have forensically picked apart the carcass of what remained of my original speech.
That’s testimony to the subject and to the quality of the debate, and it’s an honour to be here, even if I am now completely adrift. I’m tempted to just say “Thankyou, Madam President, for the dinner and the plush accommodation” and sit down again. But I’ve got a few things I want to say.

Read the Question

My family have a little good luck tradition. They say “read the question”. Of course, that was because of exams, you read the question on the exam, but we also use it for driving tests, doctors appointments, and job interviews. It got to a ridiculous stage during the London Marathon when my sister, at mile twenty, was running past, and we were all going “read the question, Harri, read the question!”
So of course my mother, today, she knew I was going to be here. She said “read the question!” And I said to her, “I have”. And that’s why I am on this side of the debate. Because I fear that the supporters haven’t quite read the question. They present loads of fascinating things about social media and activism, but they don’t realise what a demanding question you’ve set, Madam Speaker. It is a very high bar. I really want to drink the social media kool-aid. I use it every day. But this proposition asks it to do too much.

What is social activism?

So what do I think social activism is? Well, it is not simply “raising awareness”. Several people have said that. You raise awareness of a Jessie J album. And Ms Robertson cited the examples of bands and celebrities as a positive, but I think that’s actually a negative.
It is about establishing consensus, that’s what has been mentioned here today. And New Media raises awareness, and provides a space for like minded people to meet, but it is actually not particularly effective at persuading new people. Certainly no more effective than traditional media, like literature and TV.
Social media is too often an echo chamber. On Facebook we only communicate with our ‘friends’ who usually agree with us, and its shocking how often we see dissident voices on political sites blocked – Sarah Palin: very bad at this. Nadine Dorries in the UK: also very bad at this. Though it is not a phenomenon of the Right, the Left do it too.
And Facebook is actually trying to enhance this process. They are doing algorithms now so that people you ‘like’ the most get foregrounded in your timeline. and I think a lot of the polarisation in politics stems from this echo chamber, where you are only being exposed to people who agree with you.
It is the same with Twitter. Alexis Madrigal said that … “Twitter is search engine in which I am the algorithm” and I think that’s true.
So it helps us to connect, but read the question: Social activism is not the same as simply ‘connecting’. Its much more difficult.

Social Activism Requires a ‘Project’

It is essential to repeat that social activism usually involves a project. We discussed that as well. It involves deciding that what you believe is right and then campaigning for it to happen. “Building that network of like-minded individuals”, someone said.
And social conservatives like Senator Vitter are sometimes suspicious of that, and actually you are right to be suspicious. “Its a Grand Project we’re all marching towards!” but that’s not the debate.
We’ve spoken about the Arab Spring a lot. But I just don’t think it makes the bar for very good social activism. It was a heady time – fantastic to see people take to the streets, and the use of facebook, yes. Social Media speaking truth to power. But as Chris said, these revolutions were leaderless, there was no coherent strategy for what came after. The project was fuzzy. And if there was a project exisiting in the minds of the activists they didn’t get that above the noise.
In Egypt the progressive vanguard has been overtaken by the Islamists, and someone from the old regime. The death of of Ghaddafi has exposed the collapse of Rule of Law in Libya. Syria is a bloodbath.
Three years ago, even with an organised opposition movement in Iran, with a clear figurehead, they even had a day on which to protest, after Friday prayers. It was inspiring to watch, and what did we do?
I’ll tell you what we did in the West. We turned our Twitter profile pictures green. That’s what we did. We spectated. And all the while, the streets of Tehran were being turned red with the blood of Neda Agha-Soltan and her friends.
So its not ‘Social Media Inspires a Revolutionary Mob’. Its not ‘Social Media Inspires an Outburst’. Read the question. It needs to be something more methodical than that.

The New Net Politics is Not All New and Not Social Activism

Social Media in a way has changed culture. That’s what a lot of people say, and that’s true. But the lesions of social media, I think politicians have learnt anyway. I’ll just quote to you a great tweet from a really impressive Palestinian social activist, called Yeshua, who says:

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth

(hashtag ‘sermon’, hashtag ‘mount’). 54 characters.
What Jesus and others realised is if you want your message to be remembered, it has to be short and pithy.

Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

69 characters.
If your political programme is so verbose, that it can only be written on the scrolls in the Library of Alexandria, then you are destined to obscurity.
Virgil would have had a twitter feed, Socrates would have had a twitter feed, its a note-taking technology. It’s much faster, Ben, you’re right. But I don’t think speed is enough for ‘reinvention’. Its disruptive, but I don’t think its enough.
You mention these big online campaigns like Move On, Obama, Blue State Digital, Avaaz,, 38 Degrees in the UK. And they are making a science out of campaigning! They’re really good at segmenting and targeting their audience. But they’ve got a dirty little secret which Mark let slip a little bit earlier. The insight that Karl Rove and the Republicans worked out in 2000. And that is: E-mail! Web 1.0.
Campaigns, all campaigns, and my own campaign organisation, English PEN, get most of their hits from e-mails! And what do they ask? Someone said earlier:

  • Give us money.
  • Sign a petition.
  • Write to your MP or Senator.

The same campaign actions got slavery abolished, and got votes for women! It is not a reinvention of anything.

Social Media Could Reinvent Social Activism

So I’ve said “Read the Question”. I’ve picked on the semantics of the debate. And there is a final word in the proposition, which is “has”. The past tense.
I don’t think it has but I think it could. What could it look like?
Well, peer-to-peer social networking, where we’re actually campaigning to change the minds of our friends. A Facebook where instead of having ‘friends’ you have ‘enemies’ you you try to convince! Read the question: It hasn’t happened yet.
I am out of time now so I will just tell you why I am being so picky. The Oxford Union, this institution, is a very influential place. The people who will change the world, and be the leaders of activism, and politics, and business and media in the future, are in this room. And I can’t let you get away with the idea that that you can change the world with a Twitter and a Facebook page!
You need to get on your feet. You need to get out there. You need to take your time, you have to talk to people, and the projects you start will not be finished in your lifetime.
But that’s OK. You can do it. Good luck.
Thank you.

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